McCain Battles 'Unforced Errors' to Stay on Message

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is having trouble staying on message -- or, more specifically, his campaign is.

McCain had hoped to spend the early part of this week discussing energy and the environment but instead the Republican presidential candidate found his message muddled when one of his top advisers told Forbes magazine in an upcoming issue that a new terror attack on Americans "certainly would be a big advantage to him."

Terror Talk Knocks McCain Camp Off Message...Again

McCain was taken aback when confronted by the remark made by Charlie Black, one of his top strategists, and his campaign was accused of being either insensitive or calculating in making the remark.

The candidate quickly condemned his adviser's comments Monday, and Black was sent out to read a statement apologizing for what he said.

A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll found McCain leads by 14 points in trust to handle terrorism and holds a slim 6-point edge on international affairs over his rival, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., although Obama trumps McCain by 2-1 or more on environmental issues and issues of special concern to women; by 15 to 20 points on health care, gas prices, the economy and energy policy; and by 8 points on taxes.

Michael O'Hanlon, a terrorism expert with the Brookings Institution, told "Good Morning America" Tuesday, "Certainly, Charlie Black can make the argument he did, and he's got reasonable grounds to do it. But it seemed too callous, like he was looking for political benefit out of something that if it happened would have a terrible human cost."

The headlines and airtime generated by the flap dominated the campaign's coverage on a day that McCain hoped the headline would be about his proposed $300 million prize for whoever could produce a new super car battery that would help reduce pollution and the country's reliance on foreign oil.

Richard Ben-Veniste, a member of the 9/11 commission, held a conference call with reporters Tuesday to discuss Black's comment -- a day when McCain will be in California hoping to focus press coverage on his plans for the environment.

George Stephanopoulos, ABC News' chief Washington correspondent, said the McCain camp "is tearing their hair out over it this morning."

Gaffe or Calculated Tactic?

The terror remark also allowed the Obama camp to claim Black's remarks wasn't a gaffe but a calibrated tactic straight out what Obama calls "the Bush-Cheney political playbook of fear."

"We know what kind of campaign they're going to run," Obama declared over the weekend at a fundraiser in Jacksonville, Fla. "They're going to try to make you afraid."

"The bigger problem for the McCain campaign right now is that they can't seem to avoid what one aide called these unforced errors," Stephanopoulos said. "They were trying to drive home a message on energy policy. This got in the way."

Another unforced error occurred last month when McCain tried to present an image of being tough on lobbyists by banning active lobbyists from working on his campaign.

The rule forced several top strategists to quit the McCain campaign and instead focused attention on all the lobbyists who were working for McCain.

McCain also hurt himself when he held a relatively small rally on the same night that Obama claimed the Democratic nomination before a monstrous crowed of 19,000 cheering supporters.

The candidate, on the trail in California Tuesday, hopes to put this latest bump behind him and focus on the environment -- if only his campaign can stay out of his way.